Can a play lie in wait? Let's say it can so we can say that it has: Lanford Wilson's Burn This has been lurking about since 1987 anticipating the arrival of Adam Driver, and for that match alone the years haven't been wasted.
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But that match-up alone is very nearly all we get in Michael Mayer's Broadway revival opening tonight at the Hudson Theater. And that's pretty odd, since the production's other match-up – Driver and his fellow Star Wars: Episode IX compatriot Keri Russell – is the major selling point here, and that's been scorching subway walls since steamy ads began cropping up earlier this winter
To say that Burn This has aged particularly well since '87 is rather like pointing out a lopsided old house with a badly built foundation needs a paint job – true enough , maybe, but almost beside the point. Burn This 'flaws have been there from the start – it's an AIDS play that doesn't mention AIDS and a love story that demands we take love on faith – but as a vehicle for actors to make a big, showy act of acting, well, it does.
Getting to the unfortunate point: Russell, so good in The Americans is just the match for either Driver or the internship. Her performance here is flat, her delivery single-note. Her Anna not only gets overshadowed by Driver's larger-than-life Pale, but by the stuffed shirt boyfriend whose purpose is drawn, from decades upon decades of stage convention, to cast almost no shadow.
And make no mistake: Burn This is nothing if not conventional. Strip away the obscenities and epithets – shocking still, but for completely different reasons than in '87 – and the speech isn't yards from Neil Simon or Philip Barry: An emotionally closed woman has her complacency (and her complacent relationship with that stuffed shirt ) upended by the arrival of an uninhibited and very sexy wild card of a man who would have been or Richard Dreyfus in other eras. There's even a good friend who cracks wise (and, as played here by Brandon Uranowitz, cracks very good, very well indeed).
Set at the height of the AIDS devastation (and in the environment it was devastating, all without ever made the slightest reference to it), Burn This starts just after the funeral of Robbie, a young gay dancer whose death in a boating accident has crushed Anna (Russell), Robbie's roommate, best friend and dance collaborator . Anna has just returned from his deeply depressing funeral in New Jersey, where his estranged clueless (perhaps) family has been his girlfriend.
Back at the Lower Manhattan loft studio (perfectly rendered in '80s industrial style with second-hand furniture by Derek McLane) that she shares with Larry (Uranowitz), a frustrated advertising writer, and that they both shared with Robbie, Anna is comforted, somewhat, by her comfortable boyfriend Burton (David Furr, excellent), a handsome, wealthy (by birth) sci-fi writer who makes few demands on her and fit nicely with the loving roommate triumvirate.
Enter Pale (Driver), Robbie's brash, crude, coked -up older brother who's come from Jersey to collect some belongings, most likely, try to make sense of his estranged world. Despite Anna's previous assumption, Pale was well aware of Robbie's sexuality and none too happy about it – he's sussed out Anna's living arrangement with, as he puts it, "the two fagots" around the same time he first slings the c-word at her
In one of the era's great, attention-grabbing, actor-announcing entrances, Pale stumps in the loft, dressed in a shiny suit and lizard boots, and lets with this breathless, break-neck soliloquy:
Goddamn this f * ckin 'place, how can anybody live in this shit city? I'm not doing it, I'm not driving this car this goddamn sewer, every f * ckin 'time. Who are these assholes? Some bug-eyed, fat-lipped son of a bitch thinks he owns this f * ckin's space. The city's got this space specially reserved for his private use. Twenty-five minutes away from driving around this garbage street. I pull back this space, I look back, this baby's shit green Trans Am's on my ass beep beep. I get out, this f * cker says that my space. I showed him the f * ckin 'tire iron; You are going to wake up tomorrow, find yourself slept in your f * ckin 'car. This is your space, you treasure your pop-up headlights. Ho-Jo. Am I right? That shit? There is no talkin 'to shit like that.
Driver delivers the four-letter rant like aria, beautifully. Later, there are other uglier slurs and insults, though neither Anna nor Larry seem overly offended, certainly not by today's standards. Audience members entertaining the thought that the roommates should call the police and have the foul-mouthed drunks off may be bound to feel all snowflake, as we just can grab the politically incorrect passion of those hurly burly days gone by. When Pale sucker punches Burton, well, he didn't punch Anna, did he? Counts for something, right?
Or does it? Anna and Pale fall into bed so quickly – shared grief, ok, and the red-lights flashing lust of two Tennessee Williams horndogs – that we know they're meant for one another, souls meant to break free of inhibition and collide, then collide again until the goodbye girl says stay
But here's where Wilson's' 80s era has played no better than Donna Summer's born-again era. Driver, or rather Pale, or, well, now, Driver is just as sexy as all get out, but showing a girl affection by pummeling her boyfriend and repeatedly calling here seem quite charming as it once did, and using his height and darkness, the strength to fill a room with dread and fear just doesn't care. Aziz Ansari nearly destroyed his career for much less.
So what? I say passion, or at least chemistry. But Russell's Anna just needed the emotional weight to provide the same for an equal and opposite reaction to Driver's Pale. She seems to have been drawn to Burton. Better she had stayed with that rich, handsome, doting stiff. They'd had a nice little life.